(Like many of my colleagues, in Los Angeles and around the nation, I incorporated gun-control issues into one of my High Holy Day sermons. This is an edited excerpt from my Yom Kippur sermon.)
"May I respectfully remind you, life and death are of supreme importance, time passes quickly and opportunity is lost; let us awaken, awaken, take heed: do not squander your life." This chant, called the Evening Gata, which I heard every night for three weeks at a Buddhist meditation retreat, and which is chanted 365 nights a year by residents of the center, moved me in ways that I didn't expect. I knew at some point on that retreat, in January, that I would be talking about this chant in September, on Yom Kippur because "Do not squander your life" is the theme of the Jewish High Holy days. It is the theme of the Unetanetokef prayer, which asks "who shall live and who shall die," but the real question before us is not when we will die, but rather, when will we live? We even pray these words, originally from the prophet Isaiah, every Shabbat during Lecha Dodi: "hit'orreri, hit'orreri, ki va orech, kumi ori, wake-up, wake-up, for the light has come, arise, awaken." Waking up and paying attention is a very Jewish concept; it is what is asked of us when we proclaim that "teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah - repentance, prayer and charity - lessen the severity of the decree." Today we are charged to ask ourselves: What is happening around us, within us, between us, that calls us to awaken and take heed, that beckons us to do the right thing and not squander the chance we are being given right now?
Who shall live and who shall die? Time passes quickly and opportunity is lost. One of the stark cultural differences that I noticed daily while on a recent five-month sabbatical in Israel was their relationship to guns. Every Israeli citizen is trained in how to use a weapon, many have weapons in their homes, and if you've been in Israel you know that most soldiers and police officers openly carry several weapons. Yet despite the prevalence of weaponry, there is virtually zero gun-related civilian violence in Israel. This is in part due to cultural and social differences, but it is also in large part because Israel has some of the toughest gun-control restrictions in the world. When a former soldier, who mistakenly still had his gun, robbed a bank and killed someone in Beersheva during our time in Israel, there was a new law in the Knesset, by the end of week, tightening a restriction that allowed this person, mentally unstable, to still have a gun. Let me repeat: within a week of a preventable gun violence tragedy, the Israeli government -- not always known for its hyper-effectiveness -- acted swiftly and decisively to protect innocent Israelis from gun violence. It was surreal to be watching the debate on sensible gun control in the United States while sitting in Israel. Most advocates for gun reform, including me, are not saying that we should ban guns entirely. We should simply make changes to protect our innocent citizens, and our children, from the damage that guns can do. Do not squander your life. What are we doing to address gun violence as a public health problem?
This is not only about the Washington Navy Yard and Sandy Hook and Colorado and Virginia Tech, horrific events that make headlines; it is also about the over 300 people, including 50 children, that are shot every day in America, far surpassing the next closest country's figures. It is about the fact that accidental gun deaths rank right behind auto accidents in killing people every year, yet automobile safety is heavily regulated, resulting in the number of auto-related deaths dropping even as the number of cars continues to increase. Who shall live and who shall die? How many lives are being squandered? Here are some things I learned at a recent panel sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California: 20,000 people a year are killed or injured in accidental shootings; the gun industry, unlike the pharmaceutical industry or agriculture industry, for example, has NO federal agency responsible for regulating it or requiring safety measures. One of the experts who spoke on the panel, Loren Lieb, an epidemiologist with the Los Angeles County Department of Health, said if this were any other public health issue -- SARS, polio, chicken pox, or auto accidents -- with such high numbers of people being killed, the nation would be demanding action and there would be no controversy. Here are a few great comparisons: did you know that you can't buy a hooded sweatshirt for kids with a string anymore because it is a choking hazard? A particular style of high-heel shoes was recently recalled because they posed a fall hazard; you can't buy a teddy bear with button eyes because kids might choke. But it is illegal to require guns to have a safety lock or a mechanism that tells the owner if a bullet is in the chamber; there are no regulations against cheaply made guns that misfire, and there are no recalls for guns that don't work properly. These are facts, not pro or con, just facts.
Life and death are of supreme importance, time passes quickly and opportunities are lost. 6-year old Noah Pozner was one of the Sandy Hook victims whose life was cut short, even as his twin sister survived. At the funeral, his teenage brother Michael said, "Let us not be lost in sorrow. ... Let us live our lives as healthily, righteously and happily as we can. Let's do it for our little man, who would have wanted that." I believe that righteousness, not rights, is at the heart of this issue in our nation. Let us work with the courage and beauty that Michael Pozner spoke about. Who shall live and who shall die? How many more lives will be squandered before we awaken, awaken, take heed?
Follow Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rabbijoshua